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The Foundling

A Novel



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About The Book

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Good House, the “harrowing, gripping, and beautiful” (Laura Dave, New York Times bestselling author) story of two friends, raised in the same orphanage, whose loyalty is put to the ultimate test when they meet years later at an institution—based on a shocking and little-known piece of American history.

It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. She’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Inspired by a true story about the author’s grandmother, The Foundling is compelling, unsettling, and “a stunning reminder that not much time has passed since everyone claimed to know what was best for a woman—everyone except the woman herself” (Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author).


Chapter One One
I’VE been told that my mother had a wonderful sense of humor. Also that she was pretty. But most people recall her wit first, and her easy laughter, and because of this I’ve always had a better sense of how she felt than how she looked. She must have been happy most of the time if she found so many funny things to say and to laugh about. She died when I was an infant, so I have no memory of her. After I moved to my aunt Kate’s house, I’d hear her talking with friends about my mother and me, usually in hushed tones after I’d just left the room.

“She’s a somber little thing,” somebody would say. Or “She’s so shy; she certainly hasn’t Louisa’s high spirits.”

That was my mother—Louisa. Apparently, there was a sparkle in her eye. My uncle Teddy said this about her once, and when I asked him where the sparkle was—what part of the eye, he laughed and gave me a wink. When I asked him again, he told me to shut my trap.

I didn’t inherit my mother’s high spirits or her sparkly eye, but she did leave me a very nice lady’s suitcase. It had been a wedding gift from a wealthy distant cousin. I never saw it until the day Father came for me at St. Catherine’s Orphan Asylum. He gave Mother Beatrice no notice, just showed up one afternoon in the summer of 1922, when I was twelve. He arrived in a borrowed black Packard, and when he strode out to the courtyard, where my friends and I were playing, he called out, “Which one of you is Mary?”

At least five of us raised our hands—it was a Catholic orphanage, after all. But I felt, as he smiled vaguely at each of us in turn, like he’d reached inside me and crushed my heart with his hand. I hadn’t seen him in almost a year, but I recognized him instantly. I’d grown a bit; I think that’s why he didn’t know me at first.

“What about Edel… or Trudy?” he said. “We called our girl Trudy when she was a baby. Trudy Engle.”

I was too thrilled to remain hurt. As soon as I stepped forward, he said, “Well, there you are,” and pulled me close. I felt the strange smoothness of his freshly shaved jaw during that brief moment when he pressed his face against my forehead. He used to have rough whiskers when Uncle Teddy took me to visit him up at the lumber mill.

He told me to pack my clothes—he was moving me in with Aunt Kate. The laughter and taunts from some of the older girls when he reminded them of my original name were like blanks fired from a pistol. They were like the loud pop-pop-pop from a clown’s dummy pistol in the circus that came to Scranton every summer. The circus had a free night for “Foundlings and Other Unfortunates.” We all screamed and clung to one another when we were little and heard that clown’s gun the first time, but the next year and the years after, we didn’t even flinch. We fought over peanuts and candy in the stands while the clown did those same old tired gags. The elephant never left its tent on foundling night—sometimes the acrobats took the night off too. We were left with that dumb clown and a dog act, and who cared about them? We got free bags of goodies. Similarly, who cared about those girls calling me that stupid nickname? I had a father; they didn’t. He was taking me away. They were staying there at the home.

“Well c’mon, let’s get your things,” Father said. He was carrying the lovely white suitcase that had once belonged to my very own mother.

“She hasn’t many things,” Mother Beatrice scolded when we were in the long, low-ceilinged dormitory hall. “Certainly not enough to fill a large suitcase like that, Mr. Engle. I don’t know what a girl would do with such an expensive-looking piece of luggage. If you’d given us more notice, we’d have gladly packed her essentials in a parcel as we do for our half-orphans who are lucky enough to have family to go to.”

A few of my friends—Dorothy, Marge, Mary Hempel, Little Mary—they’d all followed us inside, and now they gaped at Father like he was a film star—it wasn’t every day a real father showed up at St. Cat’s. I realized that I was gazing up at him the way they were, more like an awestruck fan than a daughter. I moved closer to him, and I even thought for a moment that I should hold his hand—the way daughters did with their fathers in the movies. But he accidently jabbed me in the shoulder when he tossed the suitcase on the bed, then he pulled a handkerchief from his vest to wipe his forehead. It was so hot up there in the ward on summer days you could barely breathe sometimes.

Mother Beatrice was busy examining my mother’s suitcase, and that really bugged me. It was my mother’s, why did she have to touch every inch of it? Finally, she turned the two brass clasps in front, flipped up the top and whispered, “Oh my.”

The other girls and I crowded around to see the inside, which was lined entirely with pink satin. Mother Beatrice tentatively lifted a thin panel, revealing a lower compartment. This was also lined in pink. It was padded, like a pillow, and decorated with little hand-stitched ovals.

“Oh, this is very nice,” Mother Beatrice said, her bony fingers flitting, spiderlike, across the pink lining and in and out of the pockets. “A place for everything and everything in its place, very nice, though hardly useful for a little girl—now what’s this?”

She yanked at a thin strap that was dangling from one of the pockets. Out sprang a lady’s garter. It was attached to a sheer silk stocking that swept across Mother Bea’s throat, and had it been a snake the nun couldn’t have screamed louder nor tossed it farther from her. I thought I’d suffocate it was so hard not to laugh. Father was unable to restrain himself. He chuckled and winked at us girls as we giggled into our hands.

“Goodness me,” Mother Beatrice whispered, staring at the items on the floor. She was blushing to the very edges of her habit. Father leaned over to pick up the stocking and the garter. He wasn’t laughing anymore. He carefully folded the stocking and tucked it and the garter into a pocket in his jacket.

“This was my wife’s suitcase,” he said quietly. “I didn’t know there was anything left in it. She only used it once. On our honeymoon.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said the nun, clearly flustered, her face still beet red. She crossed herself. Then she closed her eyes, resting one of her hands on the suitcase. The girls and I bowed our heads and lowered our eyelids slightly, but we watched her the way we watched all nuns who prayed—as keen and alert as hunting dogs. We were looking for our mothers’ angels (I never saw mine, but I always looked because there were older girls who said they saw their mothers floating above the nuns whenever they prayed). When Sister crossed herself again, I packed up my flannel drawers, woolen leggings, and other items with the help of Dorothy and the others.

My departure from Scranton and my aunt Kate’s house, five years later, was almost as abrupt and unexpected as my departure from St. Catherine’s had been. One hot spring morning, I was standing in a stinking, crowded trolley, silently cursing the broken-down truck that was blocking its tracks. The next day, I was being chauffeured through town in a gleaming limousine, resisting the impulse to wave imperiously at all the common folk stepping over littered gutters and gawking at us as we rolled past.

The day of the stalled trolley, I was late, so I decided to leap from its platform, and at that exact moment it finally lurched forward. I stumbled to the filthy curb, tearing one of my new stockings. I was supposed to meet my teacher, Mrs. Pierson, at a lecture downtown. She wanted to introduce me to her friend—a visiting doctor, who might have a job opportunity for me. I sprinted the five remaining blocks to the YWCA, only to find that the heavy doors to the main hall were closed; the program had already begun.

“My dear, what happened?” Mrs. Pierson whispered, as I sidled into the seat that she’d saved next to her. I began whispering explanations, but she interrupted me with a gentle squeeze of her gloved hand and a smile of pardon. She jutted her chin toward the speaker at the front of the auditorium to indicate that I should direct my attention there.

“Is that Dr. Vogel?” I whispered.

I’d never met a female doctor before, but the stout, dour matron at the podium was exactly what I’d expected one to look like. As I’d tiptoed down the center aisle just moments before, she’d paused dramatically to shoot me a disapproving glare before continuing her speech.

“Oh, dear me, no,” Mrs. Pierson responded. “That’s Mrs. Danforth—Judge Danforth’s wife.” She squeezed my hand again, which allowed me to relax a little.

Mrs. Danforth announced, “Finally, I’d like to thank all the ladies from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union for organizing today’s lecture and luncheon. Now then—a few words about our distinguished guest—Dr. Agnes Vogel. As many of you know, Dr. Vogel was an outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage and served as one of the leaders of the Pennsylvania Red Cross during the war. One of the first women in this country to earn a medical degree in psychiatry, Dr. Vogel is the founder and superintendent of Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. We are honored to have her here today to tell us all about Nettleton Village, whose mission is to protect our commonwealth’s most vulnerable young women. So, please, do let’s give a warm welcome to Dr. Vogel.”

I joined in the applause and craned my neck to see over the hats in front of me. I knew Mrs. Pierson was at least forty and that she and Dr. Vogel had attended college together, but the woman approaching the stage looked younger. Unlike the ladies in the audience, who wore linen day dresses or tailored suits—tall, slender Dr. Vogel wore a silk dress with a smartly muted floral print and a chic dropped waist. When she reached the podium, she touched the cheek of her hostess with her own, then turned to face us. No, this elegant woman with the sleek blond bob and fine, aristocratic features wasn’t what I’d imagined a female doctor to look like at all.

“Good morning,” Dr. Vogel said, smiling out at us. “I recognize many faces here from the Red Cross and our other war efforts, and it’s wonderful to be among such fine friends again.”

I settled back into my seat and examined the ladderlike run in my stocking. I wasn’t really interested in the lecture. It was 1927. Why carry on about women’s suffrage now that women had the right to vote? Why maintain temperance clubs, years after liquor had been prohibited and everybody drank anyway? I came to meet Dr. Vogel because I needed a job. Mrs. Pierson taught shorthand, typing, and stenography at the business school I’d attended for the past year, and she told me I was her youngest and most promising student. When she learned that her friend Dr. Agnes Vogel needed a new secretary, she recommended me; the timing was perfect, as Dr. Vogel was engaged to speak in Scranton that week. Mrs. Pierson had insisted that I come and hear the speech, so, after straightening out the stocking, I gazed back up at the stage with what I hoped was an interested expression.

Dr. Vogel was explaining that army examiners during the war had been surprised that so many American men were unfit to serve because they suffered from mental defects. “My research as a psychiatrist, and the research of my colleagues, have revealed that the incidence of feeble-mindedness is equal, if not greater, among girls and women, and it is this population—that of the female unfortunate—who poses the greatest threat to our society.”

Dr. Vogel paused, peered over her spectacles, and scanned the rows.

“I just want to make sure there are no gentlemen present.” Seemingly satisfied, she said, “I prefer ladies-only groups like this because I can discuss delicate social issues that might cause embarrassment in an audience of mixed company.”

I wasn’t the only one in my row who leaned forward to better hear this too-embarrassing-for-mixed-company business.

“We’re all adults here, so I’m able to say something we all know to be true and that is this: No normal woman will choose to have intimate relations with a man who has the mind of a small child. But it is a sad fact—and ladies, we know it’s a fact—that there are many otherwise honorable men who will have illicit relations with a certain type of young woman, regardless of her mental limitations or suitability as a potential mother. I trust you’re familiar with the type of girl I’m referring to. You’ve seen her slinking in and out of bawdy houses and illegal drinking establishments, right here, in your fine city of Scranton. At first glance, she may seem normal enough—in fact, she’s often quite pretty. Until you see her again, a few years later, ruined and destitute, begging for handouts, surrounded by her own diseased and illegitimate children. This poor, mentally deficient girl, often unwittingly lured into a criminal lifestyle by the most evil of men, is the type we make every effort to segregate and care for, before she has children, not just for her safekeeping, but, most important, for the safekeeping of our communities.”

Dr. Vogel went on to describe all the modern facilities at the Village, as she called it, and the progressive programs she had instituted. The girls at the Village—they sang, they cooked, they planted, they learned. I tried to hide my yawns. Finally, the doctor’s voice changed to that promising bright tone people often use just before the end of a speech, and I perked up again.

“Yes, we’ve made great progress at the Village, but we need your help,” she said. “We have more than six hundred residents and almost as many on our waiting list. In order to accommodate them all, we require at least three additional buildings. Therefore, I’ve requested government aid to assist with construction costs. If you have concerns about such an allocation of your family’s hard-earned tax dollars, I urge you to consider a case recently publicized by the Public Charities Association of Pennsylvania; a case that concerns two feebleminded women—sisters actually—from a large family of Lithuanian immigrants. These two women have passed their inherited mental defects on to their twenty-seven feebleminded, illegitimate, and delinquent children. Yes, we now have twenty-seven additional mental defectives who are being looked after by the commonwealth, and who, in turn, are beginning to produce a third generation of future paupers and criminals. Imagine if we had, instead, provided a safe haven for the two vulnerable sisters during their childbearing years. We’d have prevented the births of scores of unfortunates whose future diseases, degradation, and crime will be our burdens to suffer as well. I hope that you believe, as I do, that preventative work should be at the cornerstone of all charity endeavors. I implore you to take full advantage of our hard-won fight for the vote, my dear ladies, and urge your legislators to support funds for the expansion of Nettleton State Village.”

After the enthusiastic applause, I followed Mrs. Pierson to the front of the hall, where the doctor was surrounded by a clutch of admiring women. I was now thoroughly awed by Dr. Vogel. I had no idea there was a place where girls with slow minds could be sent for their safekeeping. It was true that girls of this type were preyed upon by men. I’d seen it myself, now that there were speakeasies scattered all over Scranton. The girls I saw coming and going from these places didn’t appear to be normal—some were drunk in the daytime. I hadn’t considered the possibility that they were producing children in the numbers the doctor had just revealed, but of course they would be, if their minds weren’t right—if they couldn’t understand the most basic moral principles.

There were plenty of new businesses opening in and around Scranton, but few of the positions I’d seen advertised were available to women. My plan was to work as a secretary until I’d saved enough to go to college. Mrs. Pierson had urged me to pursue this. “With a college degree, your opportunities are vast,” she’d explained. “Why, you might become a schoolteacher or a legal secretary.”

It would be a cold day in hell before I’d become a schoolteacher. I was never fond of children, but a legal secretary! If I had a job like that, I could live and work in an exciting city like Chicago or New York. Unfortunately, Nettleton State Village appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, halfway across the state—I’d stopped at the library the day before to look in an atlas and was dismayed to see how rural and remote the area seemed. But now that I’d heard the doctor’s speech, I was desperate to work for her. I’d never met a woman who was doing important work. A woman who ran something, not a silly old women’s temperance club, but—what had she said? Why, she was a cornerstone! Dr. Vogel’s work was one of the very cornerstones of the state’s civic endeavors.

When Dr. Vogel’s many well-wishers finally stepped away, Mrs. Pierson introduced us.

“So, you’re Miss Engle, the star pupil, eh?” the doctor said, as she shook my hand.

“Yes, how do you do, Dr. Vogel?” I said.

“Aggie, your speech was just marvelous,” Mrs. Pierson said. “Now, I know I’ve already told you this, but Miss Engle is the fastest typist I’ve ever trained and a whiz at shorthand.”

My face grew hot as I said, “Oh… you’re too kind, Mrs. Pierson, really.”

After a moment of strained silence, I noticed Mrs. Pierson was giving me a look and I managed to stammer, “Dr. Vogel… well, gosh, I’d be grateful to be considered for the position. That is… if you’re still seeking a secretary or… anybody… to work there, for you.”

“Yes, we’re in desperate need of a secretary,” Dr. Vogel said, “and I’m in a bind. Let’s walk as we talk, shall we? Must we go to this dreadful luncheon, Thelma?”

“Oh, Aggie,” Mrs. Pierson said with a bemused smile. “We’ll leave before dessert.”

“Fine,” said the doctor. “Now, Miss Engle, I’d normally want you to come for an interview and a typing test, but the girl who left is getting married and gave no notice. She won’t get a recommendation from me, not that she’ll need one.”

I had to trot a little to keep up with the doctor’s sweeping strides toward the entrance of the auditorium.

“She’s marrying. Some local farm boy, I’m told,” Dr. Vogel said. She stopped and looked me over. “I don’t like hiring girls who are too pretty. As soon as they’ve been trained, they leave to get married. Well—you’re certainly not too pretty.”

“Oh, why, thank you,” I gushed before I’d fully heard her words, and then, probably because my cheeks were now flaming, Dr. Vogel touched my wrist and said, “Of course, you’re far from plain, my dear.”

“No, not at all… I mean, rather, how very nice of you,” I managed. And I wondered, then, what happened to the composed, pretty—perhaps even too pretty—girl who, little more than an hour ago, had patted her newly coiffed hair, applied just the right amount of lip rouge, and composed clever little speeches of introduction for this very moment. I had imagined a number of conversational opportunities in which I might show my intellect and industriousness before we strolled out of the auditorium together, Dr. Vogel and I, arms linked, already discussing my future promotions.

I’d expected the doctor to be dour, manly, and old. I imagined I’d be a breath of fresh air. Instead, Dr. Vogel was glamorous and lovely and smelled faintly of lavender. I smelled like a gymnasium. The fresh linen dress that I’d so carefully ironed that morning had wilted and died in the trolley, and now it hung clammily against my thin frame. My normally curly brown hair had become a sort of spongy, frizzy mass from the humidity, and it coiled around the edges of my hat like damp poodle fur. One of my stockings was virtually shredded, and I didn’t seem able to handle my end of this very basic conversation.

But Dr. Vogel was looking at her watch, not at my dress or stockings. She flashed me another smile and said, “I trust Thelma implicitly. You’re hired, Miss Engle. Today is Thursday, will you be able to start Monday morning?”

“Certainly,” I said, trying to contain my excitement. A job! I had a real job!

“There’s a train to Harrisburg. I’ll have to send my driver there to collect you on Sunday, which is tricky—that’s when he drives me to town to attend church, and that’s the wrong direction. You don’t think you could leave tomorrow morning, do you? I’m staying with Thelma tonight and plan to leave promptly at eight in the morning. You could ride to Nettleton in my automobile with me. It would save you the train fare and me the bother of arranging your transportation on Sunday.”

Leave tomorrow? I hadn’t expected to be hired there at the auditorium, and I certainly hadn’t planned to pack up everything I owned and move halfway across the state the very next day. But this was the opportunity I’d been praying for. I could finally leave Aunt Kate’s house and support myself. I might even be able to start saving for college.

“Well, Miss Engle?” Dr. Vogel pressed.

“Yes, that’ll be fine, ma’am,” I said. “Thank you, Dr. Vogel, I promise I won’t disappoint you.”

“Good. Thelma, dear, let’s go to this luncheon. See you in the morning, Miss Engle; Mrs. Pierson will give my driver your address.”

“Doctor… oh, one more thing,” I said.

Dr. Vogel and Mrs. Pierson turned and smiled at me.

“About my salary?”

Dr. Vogel lost her smile.

After what felt like a long, appalled silence, Mrs. Pierson giggled nervously and said, “My dear, I’m sure you’ll be adequately compensated.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry if I seem impertinent, Dr. Vogel, it’s just that Mrs. Pierson taught us to agree on terms before starting a job. And I will be moving rather far away.”

“Of course,” said Dr. Vogel. “You’re quite right. I’m not sure of the exact wage—we have a clerk who keeps track of these details. But I believe we paid the previous girl fifteen dollars a week, and she came to us with experience. You look quite young. How old are you?”

“I’m eighteen, Dr. Vogel.” Well, I would be eighteen in a few weeks.

“She’s very bright, Aggie,” Mrs. Pierson said.

Dr. Vogel removed her spectacles and, after pulling a handkerchief from her sleeve, slowly polished the lenses, never taking her eyes off me. I was about to blurt out an apology—for what, I didn’t know—when the doctor said, “Fine. I’ll pay you the same salary that your predecessor received. Now, Thelma, the sooner we get to this luncheon, the sooner we can leave.”

“I’ve wonderful news, Auntie!” I trilled, all la-de-da, all singsong, when I arrived home. I’d rehearsed this on the way back and had decided I might be able to ward off my aunt Kate’s ire with the right enthusiasm. I’d tell her I was her burden no more. I’d been offered a job. A paying job—I’d make that clear, since I did have a sort of job at my aunt’s. I cleaned and ran errands for her and her adult son, Daniel, to help defray the costs of my room and board, which she reminded me of regularly. Yes, why wouldn’t she be thrilled to have my room back? It was just a matter of presentation.

“Auntie?” I called.

An hour later, I was finally alone in my room. I leaned against the door and heard my cousin Daniel’s horrible old felted slippers shuffling past my room and down the carpeted stairs. He hadn’t left his room during the verbal flogging I’d endured but had no doubt derived great pleasure in listening to every word. Now Aunt Kate’s plump, pink man-child was going to join Mama for coffee and a loud inventory of my numerous trespasses.

Who cared? Tomorrow, I was leaving.

I opened my dresser and as I placed my clothes in little piles on the bed, I wondered where I would lodge at the asylum and if I’d have a roommate. I’d made my own slips and drawers from cheap cotton remnants. I had nothing fancy, and I worried that I might share a room with an older, worldlier girl—perhaps a nurse or a secretary who’d been to college. Somebody smart, with silk stockings and lace underthings.

Then I remembered my mother’s suitcase. It seemed less enormous when I pulled it from where it had been stored under my bed all those years. Of course, it would appear smaller. I was taller now. But when I dusted it off, I learned something else about my mother. She had an understanding of what made one thing finer than another. She must have had very good taste, because it was a beautifully made suitcase. The soft leather on the outside was ivory colored; it wasn’t white, as I’d remembered. That would have been garish. No, it was ivory—almost cream. She’d obviously treasured it, my mother, because why else would Father have saved it instead of tossing it out with all her other belongings? It was probably the nicest thing she ever had, and now it was mine, and no matter where I went, whoever saw me carrying it would assume that I was like my mother. And why shouldn’t I act like my mother too, now that I was moving to a new place where people didn’t think I was somber or shy? I would arrive with my mother’s easy laugh, a sparkle in my eye, and when people saw my fine suitcase, they’d have to wonder what kind of lovely things I had inside.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Foundling includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In 1927 Pennsylvania, Mary Engle’s life changes forever when she lands a secretarial job with a pioneering institution, the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age under the employ of renowned psychologist Dr. Agnes Vogel. Orphaned at a young age, Mary finds a mentor and idol in Dr. Vogel and quickly adapts to life in the Village, making friends and even finding love in the surrounding town. Then one day, she recognizes a young woman, Lillian Faust, who she grew up with in her orphanage and is now an inmate at the Village. Everything Mary has come to believe about Dr. Vogel and Nettleton is called into question and she is forced to make a choice between rescuing Lillian and the future Dr. Vogel has promised her. Mary learns of the dark secrets of the Village and the eugenic ideology Dr. Vogel espouses.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. When we first meet Dr. Vogel on page 8, she uses many dog whistles in her speech that alert the reader that she’s talking about eugenics and that her practices and positions betray a dehumanizing view of people with mental disabilities. What phrases did you pick up on as suspicious or concerning? What made them stick out to you? How do you pick up on language like this in everyday life?

2. On page 77, Dr. Vogel explains to Mary that “Wild antelope drive the genetically weak, aged, or inferior members away, for the health of the rest of the herd…Of course, we’re not animals…we must look after our weak and afflicted.” How has eugenics historically couched racism, ableism, and sexism in compassion? What remnants can you find in everyday life and language?

3. On page 96, Jake and Mary talk about how women labeled “feebleminded” aren’t allowed to marry, and on page 123, Lillian mentions that if Vogel acknowledged that some women didn’t have mental defects, she’d have to pay them. Research laws in your state or country surrounding people with disabilities and marriage and labor laws. What parallels to you see between now and century ago when The Foundling is set?

4. On page 140, Mary grapples with the revelation that Lillian is not “feebleminded” and tries to reconcile what she sees as opposing truths. “[Lillian] was so drunk one night that she was raped by one man. Another made her pregnant before she was married. Is that normal? I can’t begin to imagine what might happen to her if she were allowed back out on her own again.” Discuss Mary’s view of these events. Why does she work so hard to discredit her friend on behalf of Dr. Vogel? What role does Mary’s guilt play in her journey to understand what’s happening at Nettleton?

5. In the end, Lillian was “killed” in the midst of her escape, but her death led to a police investigation and the revelation of conditions at Nettleton. On page 308, a member of the board of trustees, Eloise Howell, says “The condition in which we found the girls and women …Well it’s something I’ll never forget.” Considering one of the board members, Mr. Whitcomb, had perpetrated violence against several of the women at Nettleton and been paid off, do you believe that Eloise Howell and others actually didn’t know what was happening at Nettleton? Discuss the responsibility of those in power to ask questions of the institutions they support and profit from.

6. Dr. Vogel idolizes female suffragists like Elizabeth Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. Do some research into their beliefs compared to other contemporaries like Anna Julia Cooper. Do you think they would have approved of Dr. Vogel’s ideas of “feeblemindedness”? How do your opinions compare to theirs?

7. Some of the reasons women were imprisoned in Nettleton State Village and labeled “feebleminded” are very loose or ill-defined, like “insubordination” or “telling lies.” What does this tell you about how they defined not only women with mental disabilities but those without? Could any of these traits of “feeblemindedness” be used against you?

8. Nettleton State Village was funded by the government and yet also turned a profit selling dairy products as well as the labor of their inmates. It was also heavily funded by people, like Mr. Whitcomb, who had a vested interest in keeping the institution going. How does this structure rely on exploitation and people in power turning a blind eye? Discuss the ongoing use of penitentiaries as profit systems.

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The Foundling is based in part on the author’s true family history. Research your own local history and see if any similar institutions once existed in your area. Were there similar scandals there?

2. The IQ test issued to women to judge them “feebleminded” is still pervasive in the collective consciousness. Research the origins of the test and try some of the questions. Does this seem like an adequate measure of your ability to make decisions for yourself? How does the persistence of the belief in such tests speak to the difficulty of changing public opinion, even after so much time?

3. Throughout The Foundling, the terms “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” are used to describe mental disorders, as was the practice in medicine in the 1920s. Look into the history of other words that were once clinically used and have since fallen into the common vernacular. What trends do you notice?

4. Watch the PBS documentary The Eugenics Crusade. How does the plot of The Foundling fit into the history of eugenics in the United States? Discuss the continuing legacy of eugenics and how it has adapted over time.

About The Author

Photo by Scott M. Lacy

Ann Leary is the New York Times bestselling author of a memoir and four novels including The Good House. Her work has been translated into eighteen languages, and she has written for The New York Times, Ploughshares, NPR, Redbook, and Real Simple, among other publications. Her essay, “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” was adapted for Prime Video’s television series, Modern Love. Her novel The Good House was adapted as a motion picture starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline. She lives with her husband in New York. Visit her online at

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (April 4, 2023)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982120399

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Raves and Reviews

"Leary’s latest is a stunning tale of corruption, compassion, and hope, and includes one of the best endings I’ve read in ages. She’s reached back in history and uncovered a shockingly true story, one that resonates strongly today. Full of jaw-dropping twists and intriguing characters – you won’t be able to put it down."

— Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Magnolia Palace

"Ann Leary’s THE FOUNDLING is a compelling, shocking record of a too-hidden piece of history - when eugenics was commonly applauded as progressive social science…. A stunning reminder that not much time has passed since everyone claimed to know what was best for a woman - everyone except the woman herself.”

-Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Wish You Were Here

“Gripping and consistently surprising, Ann Leary’s The Foundling is a first-rate historical novel, so well-researched and so well-told that the reader is transported back in time to a Pennsylvania asylum for wayward women that should never have existed. Excellent.”

Mark Sullivan, author of Beneath a Scarlet Sky

“Ann Leary is a remarkable storyteller, and The Foundling is harrowing, gripping, and beautiful. You'll be thinking about these characters long after you turn the last page."

— Laura Dave, New York Times Bestselling author of The Last Thing He Told Me

“A fascinating, unsettling, page-turning story inspired by the little-known and horrifying practice of eugenics in 1920's America.”
-Lisa Genova, New York Times Bestselling author of Still Alice and Remember

The Foundling is a gripping account of the ways big, structural decisions can change the intimate lives of ordinary people. Deeply empathetic to its characters with a sense of awe for the ironies of history, Ann Leary explores the complicated ties of community for those who have none, in a world determined to punish the most vulnerable. Through it all, her characters never lose their sense of humanity or sight of what it means to care for one another.”
—Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of Libertie

"Leary’s gripping latest (after The Children) chronicles a naïve young woman’s role in a eugenics program at a Pennsylvania asylum in 1927 ... Leary makes an engrossing drama ... [and] ends with an impressive twist. Readers will rip through this tale of historical injustice."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Leary's wit compliments her serious approach to historical and psychological issues in this thoroughly satisfying novel."

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Leary’s (The Children, 2016) richly rendered, tender tale of friendship and loyalty, based on her own family history, brings into sharp focus the horrors of such punitive institutions, which proliferated in early-twentieth-century America."


The Foundling is Leary’s first historical novel, and she has all the right instincts .... she asks you to root for a protagonist who comes equipped with the orthodoxies of her own day ... Leary is such a virtuoso that she doesn’t indulge herself at the expense of Mary’s characterization ... Leary is too clever and too honest not to know exactly what she’s doing; “The Foundling” arrests us precisely because its antagonist comes cloaked in the good intentions of progressive social reform ... Book clubs, uncork your bottles."

—Beatriz Williams, The New York Times

"The word “timely” is often used to describe novels that appear at a resonant historical moment. But when it comes to the regulation of women’s bodies and the criminalization of sex and reproductive practices, it’s hard to pick a time when a novel like Ann Leary’s “The Foundling” wouldn’t speak to where we are. ...

Leary does a brilliant job of showing how the need for emotional attachment — in this case triggered by Mary’s upbringing — can cloud a person’s judgment ...

Leary’s novel is ultimately a hopeful one, in which empathy and critical thinking reveal the structural vulnerabilities of such pyramids — built as they are on fabrications, compensations and contradictions that eventually undermine their foundations. Leary is optimistic that reason will prevail."

—Lorraine Berry, Los Angeles Times

“An irresistible teenage narrator and the jaw-dropping caper she pulls off make this novel a kick.”

-People Magazine

The Foundling turns a serious subject into a perfect beach read. [The novel is serious] but it’s also insanely fun, with fascinating characters, jaw-dropping plot twists and a hair-raising caper finale that recalls the nail-biting climaxes of ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’”

-Marion Winik, The Washington Post

The Foundling by Ann Leary takes place in 1927, as 18-year-old Mary starts work at the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing Age. When she recognizes one of the patients, a childhood friend raised in the same orphanage she was, Mary begins to wonder what’s actually going on at the facility, and whether women are being held against their will. This eye-opening novel, based in part on Leary’s family history, looks at the outrageous ways our society has sought to control women.

—Real Simple

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